Using BLEND to Develop Responsible and Autonomous Learners

Today’s Contributor: Christina Tannert, Music Teacher & CIC at Doss Elementary

We’ve all been there: You get together with some other teachers hoping for a little break from work, and soon enough the venting starts. Get more than one teacher in a group and eventually the conversation is sure to turn, however briefly, towards lamenting that great hurdle that every teacher faces… student motivation. They just won’t do the work! They are lazy! They want everything spoon fed, and nobody has any attention span anymore!

Every teacher has this experience. Looking through books, websites, blogs, and programs you can find all kinds of different “fixes,” attention-grabbers, philosophies, and people espousing their preferred method of motivation as if it is an end-all-be-all solution to this age-old problem. I cannot offer you anything of this sort, but for this blog post today I thought I would offer up some ideas and things I’ve done in my classroom in an attempt to move the needle towards engaged and autonomous learners. In my practice I find that some children respond and others do not; but every new attempt gives me more data, and more opportunity to find that thing, that hook, that will bring another kid over to my side.

I have decided to focus my technological efforts on those elusive beasts: the fifth graders. These surly pre-teens are difficult customers who come to my classroom in larger-than-normal hordes with chips on their shoulders about seeing the same teacher they have seen since kindergarten ask them to do things like sing, dance, and play instruments. My first thought was that I needed to divide and conquer. To be successful, I needed to be able to be in about 6 places at once. Next, I needed to give these kids some sort of ownership over their environment. Lastly, I needed some sort of accountability for the kids to make sure they were reaching goals and putting in the best work they were capable of.

Here’s the set-up: 3 classes, 10 devices, half a portable, roughly one bajillion TEKS, and about 8 class periods (45 minutes each) to get something done. I have my seating set up into 6 distinct sections, so I decided to go with splitting the kids into 6 groups. I used my BLEND page to create 6 different modules, each one focused on a different instrument (piano, guitar, recorder, drums, voice, electronic). Each module is set up with a similar flow: an introduction to the instrument of hearing a pro playing it, and then a short description of the parts of the instrument, followed by instructional videos of either myself or some genius from YouTube with a skill for the kids to learn. The modules include something for the kids to create, and then finish with directions for a song that they must learn to be performed for the class.

I used one class period to give the kids an overview of what we were going to be working on, and then pass the devices around for the kids to fill out a survey indicating their top three choices of instrument they would like to work on. (They had to log into BLEND to fill out the survey, so it was also a good opportunity for me to make sure they knew how to do that.) I created six groups out of each class based on that survey, and for the most part I was able to get kids into their first or second choice. For this first round, I also asked kids who considered themselves experts on any of the instruments to indicate so on the survey and put one “expert” into each group.

Next, I had to find 6 spaces around my room for the groups to meet. Headphones and 5-way splitters were definitely a necessity for this. Each group got one device, with enough devices left over for each student in the electronic group to have one. I ended up having to send the drum group outside (an interesting dilemma the day it started pouring down rain right after the group had just settled down). For the next 5 class periods I floated between the groups putting out fires as the kids worked their way through the modules. Here were some insights I gained from this:

  1. Self-selected experts are not necessarily the best choice for group leaders.
  2. Students want to play the instrument they have chosen (case in point).
  3. Channeling that want into organized, beautiful, skillful playing requires student leaders in each group that will use social pressure to keep their friends on task.
  4. The best way to encourage these student leaders to speak up is the knowledge that they will have to perform in front of other people soon.
  5. Instructional videos get way more attention than instructional text.
  6. It helps add accountability to have groups report out their progress at the end of the class period.

Between these 5 class periods, as the groups turned in the various items they had been asked to create, I made sure to broadcast these to the group and praise the efforts of the creators. Once I started doing this, it seemed to light a fire under a few of the other groups to get their creations turned in.

After that, we spent a class period practicing for our end-of-unit performances. I paired the groups up, so they spent this 45-minute period coordinating with their partner group to put their performance song together. For a couple of the groups, this was the first time they had looked at their performance song, so it was very much a necessary step.

Soon enough, performance day rolled around. While I can’t say that every performance turned out beautifully, I can say that every student performed in front of their peers with smiles on their faces. I can say that I saw fifth graders listening respectfully to each other and encouraging each other, and I can say that most students walked away having improved on something. Here is a performance that went very well indeed, and here is a performance that I can only describe as avant garde, but hey, when was the last time you saw 5th graders willfully engaging in interpretive dance in front of their peers?

After winter break, we will start the process again and re-group the students so that they can learn on a different instrument. Here are the changes I will make to try to make things run more smoothly next time:

  1. I will have the groups start off by discussing the performances from last time and making a plan for success (i.e., staying on task and completing assignments each day so that they have time to practice their performance piece).
  2. Each module will now start with directions on submitting media in BLEND and a quick quiz to make sure students know how to work with the BLEND assignment features.
  3. I will assign group leaders based on behavior factors instead of self-reported expertise.

My inspiration for this piece, and a great read on motivation and autonomy:



1 Comment

  1. I love how you hook the kids! I think we all strive to have that kind of environment/feedback. I’m wondering if history can modify what you did with the Early Republic unit and the different Presidents therein. If each group had a different person with videos and support, it might encourage further engagement! Potentially doable with the Bill of Rights as well!

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